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The Saturday Debate: Are attack ads bad for politics? – Toronto Star



“Political attack ads call all of politics into disrepute, ultimately undermining trust in all politicians and eroding citizens’ confidence that democracy is the best system for choosing our leaders,” writes Peter Loewen. On the other side, “what voters need to know is not just what’s desirable but what’s possible, and how,” writes Rick Salutin. “It’s useful to see candidates pick each other and their proposals apart. Ads are just one way of doing that.”


Peter Loewen

Incoming director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

Negative politics — and its favourite tactic, attack ads — erode trust in our democracy, polarize voters, and cause enmity between citizens. Attack ads are not good for our politics.

Of course, in the short term, attack ads may be good for politicians. Attack ads can convey important and true information about an opponent’s past statements, their current policy positions, and even their future actions. In short, they may be informative.

Precisely because attack ads are cast in a negative light, they may attract more attention from voters, causing them to attend more closely. Humans, after all, are hard-wired to pay attention to that which makes us anxious or threatens us. Attack ads may also lead voters to think the stakes in an election are higher and that the divisions between parties are greater than they really are. In sum, they may be motivating.

Attacks ads may well work to serve the ends of one politician over another. In the business of getting votes and winning elections, then, they may be good for politicians. But are they good for politics?

Potato chips are wonderful for satisfying a craving hunger. They are a poor basis for a healthy diet and a long life. Attack ads may help in the short term. In the long term, they degrade our politics.

Here are principal ways attack ads are bad for our politics.

  • First, they call all of politics into disrepute, ultimately undermining trust in all politicians and eroding citizens’ confidence that democracy is the best system for choosing our leaders. A small thought experiment makes this point.

Why, for example, does McDonald’s not run advertisements running down Burger King’s products? Surely, they believe their own are better and that consumers ought to choose them. Why not simply “raise an interesting question” about where exactly Burger King’s beef comes from? At least one reason is that this could erode the total market demand for hamburgers. If Burger King is bad for you, maybe McDonald’s is, too.

Politicians are in a different business, though. The party that takes power does so irrespective about how many people vote in absolute terms. All that matters is the share of votes received. The steady decline in turnout we have seen over the past half century has at least something to do with the persistent negativity of our politics.

  • Second, negative ads likely increase polarization. Politics — even in Canada — is increasingly polarized around issues. This polarization can happen in at least two ways.

One way is that voters take increasingly extreme views on issues, rather than centrist views. This is at least partially caused by political rhetoric that emphasizes stark positions.

The other is that voters are more consistently ideological in their views, so voters who have a certain position on one issue — say abortion — will have a certain position on another unrelated issue — say, capital gains taxes. By engaging negative campaigning on issues, parties increase the stakes of those issues, compelling partisans to get in line with other partisans, rather than entertaining a diversity of opinions. This polarization, as my colleague Eric Merkley has shown, is not limited to the United States.

  • Third, negative advertising and campaigning increases enmity between people. Attack ads that call into question the fundamental motivations and values of politicians cause voters to hold more negative opinions of those leaders. But the effect is not contained. Instead, it bleeds into their evaluations of the people who support those leaders.

Again, as my colleague Eric Merkley has shown, voters in Canada have increasingly negative feelings not only about politicians in other parties, but about the people who vote for them.

One of the great tricks of democratic politics is that it allows us to solve a big problem — who will make and enforce the rules for our lives — in a peaceful way. And by doing it only every few years, it allows us to otherwise go about our lives peaceably and productively.

If negative politics threatens that, it does so by deceiving us into believing that this is a bad way to govern ourselves and by leading us to think that our fellow citizens are not deserving of our respect because we disagree over some small set of issues. This may well be good for politicians seeking to be elected, but it is bad for us and for our politics.

Peter Loewen is the incoming director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.


Rick Salutin

Freelance contributing columnist for the Star

Bad for politics? Attack ads are politics in our system, more or less. We have an adversarial politics, just as we have an adversarial legal system. So there’s a loyal opposition, with the emphasis on opposing. Scrapping attack ads would be like eliminating cross-examinations in court.

Different systems are surely possible. Some countries have “neutral” judicial bodies that investigate and judge crimes. We have places in Canada — Nunavut or the Northwest Territories — that operate on consensus politics without an opposition, the way municipalities are supposed to.

But there’s something to be said for attack strategies in politics. Long ago I studied with a Marxist, Herbert Marcuse, who called his book, “One-Dimensional Man,” an “exercise in the power of negative thinking.” That itself was an attack on a sappy bestseller of the time called “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

It’s too easy in politics to burble on positively, making promises. What voters need to know is not just what’s desirable but what’s possible, and how. They often say that their vote comes down to choosing the least worst option. So it’s useful to see candidates pick each other and their proposals apart.

Ads are just one way of doing that, and they should certainly be regulated. But the plus is that we’ve all seen so many ads, essentially since birth, that we can be judgmental ourselves, and learn things even from dubious cases.

Take the stupid Willy Wonka ad that Conservatives put out before the last federal campaign, with Justin Trudeau’s face ineptly superimposed on a film character. It was like saying, “If we can’t even make a competent ad, why would you trust us to run Canada?” Their own MPs were embarrassed and it got pulled.

Or take the current flood of ads about Ontario’s coming election.

The PCs are running a radio ad of Doug Ford saying, “I hear it all the time, politicians are famous for finding reasons to say no. That’s not me … we are the party saying Yes.”

My first thought was: what a weird assertion, that I’m the Yes man. Who said you weren’t? Oh wait, there are long lists of things he cut, even during the pandemic. (Though he does say Yes to his developer buddies on building Hwy. 413, where they own big plots of land along the way.)

In effect, he’s become his own attack ad against himself. So this week, when he told immigrants not to come to Ontario to rip off “the dole,” you think, that doesn’t sound very Yessy. Or last week: “Folks, I’m gonna tell you something, the worst place you can give your money is to the government.” That’s a pretty big No from Mr. Yes.

The NDP have dropped a pile of ads against Ford and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca. No one who knows them will be surprised that the emotion in the anti-Liberal ads is fiercer than the anti-Ford ones, though Del Duca’s a minuscule player in the legislature — without even a seat — and apparently no money for ads. The NDP have always hated Liberals for usurping what they see as their rightful place as progressive leaders. It’s only human; most of us have been there.

The ads drip with sarcasm and are voiced by what sounds to me like an actor directed to personify a worker. The result reads to me like a middle class actor’s notion of straight-talking workers. It rings like a caricature. The music under it is arch and cute, like “Only Murders in the Building.” The NDP’s always had a problem with a sense of humour. It doesn’t have one but doesn’t know it.

The scripts are worse. They tell people what they should feel: Del Duca is “back for power, not for you.” What does that mean? If you’re trying to make up your mind, it gives you no help. My own experience writing for workers in, say, leaflets for union drives or strikes, is that they want information that’s specific (but concise), not attitudes. Give them info; they’ll provide opinions.

Del Duca’s response, by the way, to those attacks is to say something positive about the other leaders. It’s often smart to march in the other direction.

I’ve run out of space here but I must say, now that I’ve started reacting to these angry, hostile, attack ads, that it’s lots of fun. Keep them coming!

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U.S. Senate passes bill to avert government shutdown, sends to Biden for signature



The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a bill to fund the government through mid-February, averting the risk of a shutdown after overcoming a bid by some Republicans to delay the vote in a protest against vaccine mandates.

The 69-28 vote leaves government funding at current levels through Feb. 18, and gives Democratic President Joe Biden plenty of time to sign the measure before funding was set to run out at midnight on Friday.

The Senate acted just hours after the House of Representatives approved the measure, by a vote of 221-212, with the support of only one Republican.

Congress faces another urgent deadline right on the heels of this one. The federal government is approaching its $28.9 trillion borrowing limit, which the Treasury Department has estimated it could reach by Dec. 15. Failure to extend or lift the limit in time could trigger an economically catastrophic default.

“I am glad that in the end, cooler heads prevailed. The government will stay open and I thank the members of this chamber for walking us back from the brink from an avoidable, needless and costly shutdown,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on nailing down a deal with Republicans to clear the way for passing the bill.

The vote ended weeks of suspense over whether Washington might be plunged into a government shutdown at a time when officials worry that the potentially dangerous Omicron variant of COVID-19 could take hold in the United States after being discovered in South Africa.

Such a shutdown could have forced layoffs of some U.S. government medical and research personnel.

Senate Democrats defeated an attempt by a handful of conservative Republicans to attach an amendment that would have prevented enforcement of Biden’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for many U.S. workers.

Republican Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Roger Marshall had earlier raised the possibility that the government could partially shut down over the weekend while the Senate moves slowly toward eventual passage.

“It’s not government’s job, it’s not within government’s authority to tell people that they must be vaccinated and if they don’t get vaccinated, they get fired. It’s wrong. It’s immoral,” Lee said before the defeat of the amendment.

Over the past few days, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted there would be no government shutdown from congressional inaction. But he had to work through the day on Thursday to get his Republican lawmakers in line on a deal allowing quick passage of the funding bill.

The emergency legislation is needed because Congress has not yet passed the 12 annual appropriations bills funding government activities for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

A partial government shutdown would have created a political embarrassment for both parties, but especially for Biden’s Democrats, who narrowly control both chambers of Congress.


The fact the temporary spending bill extends funding into February suggested a victory for Republicans in closed-door negotiations. Democrats had pushed for a measure that would run into late January, while Republicans demanded a longer timeline leaving spending at levels agreed to when Republican Donald Trump was president.

“While I wish it were earlier, this agreement allows the appropriations process to move forward toward a final funding agreement which addresses the needs of the American people,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro said in a statement announcing the agreement.

But she said Democrats prevailed in including a $7 billion provision for Afghanistan evacuees.

Once enacted, the stopgap funding measure would give Democrats and Republicans nearly 12 weeks to resolve their differences over the annual appropriations bills totaling around $1.5 trillion that fund “discretionary” federal programs for this fiscal year. Those bills do not include mandatory funding for programs such as the Social Security retirement plan that are renewed automatically.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Moira Warburton, Doina Chiacu, David Morgan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

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Austria's Ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to Quit Politics Amid Corruption Probe – Bloomberg



Austria was thrust into political turmoil after former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz quit his party and politics, prompting his hand-picked successor and finance minister to also resign.

The day of commotion in Vienna started with Kurz’s decision on Thursday to leave his most recent role as leader of the People’s Party amid a corruption probe. 

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Canada joins U.S, EU and Britain in imposing new Belarus sanctions



Canada imposed new sanctions on Belarusian officials and entities in coordination with international partners on Thursday to protest against what it called attacks on human rights and acts of repression, Ottawa said.

A foreign ministry statement said Canada was acting together with the United States, the European Union and Britain. Separately, the U.S. Treasury imposed restrictions on dealings in new issuances of Belarusian sovereign debt and expanded sanctions, targeting 20 individuals and 12 entities.


(Reporting by David Ljunggren)

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